In recent years, Twitter has started to play an increasing role in news – from being a source for journalists to providing the public with a way to comment on and interact with unfolding events.
This essay looks at the often complex relationship between Twitter, news brands, and journalists in the context of breaking news and developing stories. Using YouGov’s social media analysis tool (SoMA), we first looked at the types of news accounts followed by the UK Twitter population. We then analysed two recent stories – the Oscars and a speech by Labour leader Ed Miliband outlining his party’s position on an EU referendum – to see the different ways they played out on the platform.
Overall, we found that the majority of people on Twitter follow some form of news account – be it a news brand, breaking news account, or journalist. A large number of them follow all three. Of these three types of account, journalists are the most popular, suggesting people appreciate the opportunity to get closer to those to who make and comment on the news.
We also see how some news stories develop on Twitter over a long time period, but how the interventions of key news accounts and professional journalists can help a particular story achieve critical mass.
Which accounts people follow for news
Data from the Digital News Report 2014 confirm the importance of Twitter as a network for finding, spreading, and discussing the news. Just under a quarter (24%) of our UK sample use Twitter each week and 12% have it as a news source, making the UK one of the biggest news markets on Twitter behind only Spain (21%). These data also show that UK Twitter users are significantly more likely to check what’s new (or click and read a news story than users of other social networks like Facebook (see Social Networks and Participation with News).
YouGov’s additional analysis tracking actual usage across a representative sample of Twitter users suggests that 64% of people on Twitter in the UK (c.5.4 million) get news through one or more type of ‘news account’. 2.6 million follow a journalist, 2.2 million follow at least one breaking news account, and 1.9 million follow at least one general newsbrand. Among those who follow news on Twitter we found that:
- 48% follow a journalist
- Two in five (40%) follow a breaking news account
- Just over one in three (35%) follow a general newsbrand
However, it is a complex picture with lots of bleeding between the three groups. The Venn diagram shows how the followers of different type of ‘news’ accounts overlap. Interestingly, the highest number on the chart is at its centre, with almost three in ten (29%) of those who follow at least one of these types of accounts actually following all three.
It is worth remembering that while all of these different types of accounts ostensibly perform different functions (breaking news feeds for events as they happen, journalists for analysis, and general news brands for promoting deeper reporting and driving engagement), the lines are often blurred. BBC Business Correspondent Robert Peston, for example, frequently uses his account to break stories as well as to promote wider coverage and engage with his followers.
Most popular “news” accounts among UK Twitter users
- Caitlin Moran
- Jon Snow
- Victoria Coren
- Robert Peston
- Nick Robinson
- BBC Breaking
- Sky Newsdesk
- Guardian news
- Channel 4 News
- Breaking News
- BBC News
- The Economist
- Sky News
- BBC News (World)
Given the position of journalists as both breakers and analysts of news, it is not surprising that so many people follow them. Twitter has provided a unique way for users to get closer to journalists and 45% of those following at least one type of news account (about 29% of all Twitter users) follow a journalist and one in five (22%) have a journalist as their only type of news content on the site.
It is clear from our analysis that while a lot of people follow both journalists and at least one type of news feed (either general or breaking), the demographic profile of these groups is slightly different. Twitter users overall are evenly split by gender but are skewed towards younger people than the overall UK population. While all of the groups we analysed are older than typical Twitter users, it is particularly noticeable among those who follow journalists. Additionally, journalist followers are more male while following general news brands and breaking news accounts has a much broader appeal.
Demographic breakdown of news followers in Twitter
Scroll data area to see more
|Twitter users who follow journalists
|Twitter users who follow breaking news
|Twitter users who follow general newsbrands
Source: YouGov social media analysis tool (SoMA) following a representative sample of 7000 UK Twitter users
Usage monitored 26th February – March 11th 2014
Behind the averages there are significant differences when we analyse specific accounts. Most (60%) of Times columnist Caitlin Moran’s following is female and the vast majority (70%) are aged 25–44 years old. By comparison, Jon Snow from Channel 4 News has a more male-skewed audience (58%) with a slightly older audience profile.
There are also important differences in the make-up of journalist and news organisations’ Twitter accounts. On average, people who follow journalists follow seven journalists. Those who follow news organisations follow just three current affairs outlets and those who follow breaking news accounts follow two on average. However, there are more accounts run by journalists than by news organisations. As a result, in total we see larger followings for news accounts than journalists; for instance BBC Breaking has 9.45 million followers, the Guardian has 2.11 million followers, compared to just 491,000 for the most-followed journalist (Caitlin Moran) in our list. (All figures here are worldwide, not just in the UK.)
Our research also shows that, through searches and retweets from others, Twitter users are exposed to accounts and tweets in their timeline that they wouldn’t normally see. Over two-thirds (68%) of people in our data have interacted with a journalist or media organisation that they don’t follow, through either a reply, favourite, or retweet. As a result, the influence of journalists and news organisations is more significant than the numbers around followers suggest.
How people follow news stories
While Twitter has changed the way we access and disseminate news, almost as important is the distinct way different types of news stories play out through the medium. Our research looked at a celebrity story (2014 Oscars) and a political announcement (Labour’s stance on an EU referendum) to see the way these different types of news have been followed on Twitter.
We started by looking at a representative panel of Twitter users of c.7,000 UK respondents and then also look at the timelines they follow – meaning that we analysed around 2 million tweets each day.
We define reach as the proportion of Twitter that has been exposed to a Tweet or had the opportunity to see a Tweet. In this case study we defined searches based on hashtags and combinations of keywords to determine what proportion of Twitter users had been exposed to each story and when. We are unable to know whether they have actually seen it or not but we know for certain it has appeared in their feed.
Oscar’s host Ellen DeGeneres broke a Twitter record for the most retweets of a single picture and message (3.4m). But in terms of driving reach in the UK, this ‘selfie’ came relatively late in the day.
The chart below shows the cumulative reach on Twitter for those being exposed to the Oscars in the lead-up to the awards ceremony – and the accounts that drove the most additional reach to the story.
With the exception of Amazon UK (which notably promoted the films on their service), it is mainly media accounts that deal with celebrity and fashion – such as ITV’s Daybreak, People Magazine, and Cosmopolitan UK – which stand out the most in the lead-up to the event.
The sharpest increase in cumulative reach for the Oscars story occurs at around midnight in the UK. DeGeneres’s account does not appear at this stage because she had already talked about the awards in the lead-up to the ceremony and further tweets by her didn’t increase unique any further. However, when Kevin Spacey tweeted about the picture shortly afterwards there was some further incremental reach.
When the actual ceremony started, a news organisation account – BBC Breaking News – posted a tweet encouraging users to follow the news of the Oscars live. Given that up to this point the majority of tweets came from entertainment journalists and celebrities, the increase in cumulative reach was relatively large due to the differing profile of people following this mainstream news organisation. By the time the event itself began at 12:30, 74% of the Twitter population of the UK had been exposed to it – with most first exposures coming from celebrity sites.
Labour and the EU
A couple of weeks after the Oscars we tracked another type of news story – Ed Miliband’s speech about the European referendum – as it emerged through Twitter. As we will see, the way the story spread was different to the Academy Awards in a number of ways.
This story built up slowly through largely specialist sources including political parties. The spark came from a report by the Reuters news agency that the Labour party was preparing to change its policy on the European Union by pledging to hold a referendum if elected in 2015.1 Interestingly the story originated in The Times newspaper (quoting an unnamed political source) but the news brand’s influence in Twitter is limited by the use of a hard paywall.
Further discussion was generated after commentary by Labour News feed and the New Statesman, but for about a week the story remained niche – being talked about by a select number of political and news accounts and reaching only about a fifth of the Twitter population.
Just a few days before the speech, however, we see the impact of mainstream news brands, first from the Guardian and then the BBC (via the influential @BBCBreaking account). The BBC tweet increased cumulative reach by 15%.
The BBC were also the quickest to ‘break’ the story to new Twitter users – faster than even Ed Miliband’s and David Cameron’s own accounts. As a result, by the time the politicians tweeted about it they were reaching very few people for the first time, suggesting they were part of the reaction and not the news.
Major news organisations’ feeds were, relatively speaking, earlier to the party than the Oscars. While BBC Breaking News was the 3,411th account to tweet about the Academy Awards it was the 381st for the Miliband story. Its exposure impact was greater as it was easier for it to cut through the clutter.
Total reach for the Miliband story was markedly lower than the Oscars. While over 80% of the UK Twitter population was exposed to the Academy Awards, Ed Miliband’s EU speech reached under 60%. Both stories were focused around specific events and yet the Oscars reached its highest cumulative reach figure in quicker time and reached more people. Looking at the Twitter figures for both stories it becomes clear why. There were 11,559 accounts tweeting about the Oscars, markedly more than the 1,500 tweeting about the Miliband story.
Online is opening up many more sources of news for consumers and some are making the most of this through sites like Twitter. However, in the cases we analysed it is clear that its reputation as a news source depends on the active participation of news brands, journalists, and breaking news accounts.
Twitter’s strength, however, lies also in its ability to combine this with first-hand accounts including celebrities and politicians. This allows a rapid flow of information at all stages of a story, allowing audiences that are interested to get a fuller picture of an event as it develops.
We also find that journalists have a particular affinity with Twitter where they can show personality, share more details about their work, and interact with followers. News organisations are less interactive and tend to operate more in broadcast mode – often linking through to further information and analysis. Social media is not all about interactivity, the importance of trusted information sources remains paramount even in Twitter.
While the two stories we looked at are different in many ways, in one important respect the way they have played out in Twitter is similar. There was so much build-up that, by the time the actual event happened, most people had already been exposed to the story.
It is over 400 years since the first newspaper was published. While in these terms Twitter is young, its importance as a news source has grown at incredible speed. Audiences like the mix of fact and opinion, authenticity and interaction, that it allows and it seems set to remain a pivotal part of the news ecosystem for the foreseeable future.
Hayley Millard and Arthur Blair contributed additional research to this essay.